Lt. Gov. Dewhurst's Homophobia Trumps Texans' Free Speech

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To round out the Texas Republican Party's make-an-ass-of-yourself week, Lieutenant Governor David Dewhurst has decided that a play performed in a classroom that features a gay Jesus is unacceptable. Yes, Texans, that's right. Apparently, you may not perform works of theater in a private setting if the subject matter is offensive to the Lieutenant Governor.

Here's what happened. A Tarleton College student chose to direct Corpus Christi as part of an advanced directing workshop. The play, by award-winning playwright Terrence McNally, revolves around modern-day gay Jesus living in modern-day Texas, who at one point performs a wedding for two gay disciples.

Dewhurst found out about it, and man is he pissed! How dare these students express themselves in an educational setting if it threatens his narrow-mindedness? The Dallas Morning News has the money-quote, emphasis mine:

Says Dewhurst in a statement: “Every citizen is entitled to the freedom of speech, but no one should have the right to use government funds or institutions to portray acts that are morally reprehensible to the vast majority of Americans.

Thankfully Dewhurst is totally wrong: most Americans are not as deeply homophobic and bigoted as he is. From recent public opinion polling:

CNN Poll, February 2010
“Do you favor or oppose permitting homosexuals to serve in the military?”
Favor Oppose Unsure
69% 27% 4%

“Do you personally think that homosexual relationships between consenting adults is morally wrong, or not a moral issue?”
Morally Wrong Not A Moral Issue Unsure
48% 50% 2%

These numbers aren't great–“Oppose” and “Immoral” need to be much, much lower–but we're slowly bending society towards increased tolerance and acceptance. From the Gallup Pollsters:

There has been a general trend toward greater acceptance of gay marriage over the years. There were times in the mid 1990s when two-thirds of Americans said “no.” Despite this trend, this year's numbers are actually a little more conservative than the previous year.

And besides–don't like a play, Lieutenant Governor? Then don't go see it. Wait, it's not being performed publicly? Only in a private classroom setting? Then don't enroll in advanced directing at Tarleton College, don't attend class regularly, and don't engage with the work of your peers. (Side note: Is this or is this not similar to his performance as Lt. Gov. during the past session? Discuss.)

The President of Tartleton College, F. Dominic Dottavio, while no paradigm of acceptance and tolerance himself, at least recognizes the First Amendment issue at hand. From the DMN, emphasis mine:

[Dottavio] made no effort to halt the production, because to do so would violate the principle of free expression.

“Like every citizen of the country, the student who chose to direct excerpts from the play enjoys his right to free speech,” wrote President F. Dominic Dottavio in a letter published today on the Tarleton State University Web site.

“This right is protected by law even if the speech is offensive to others.”

How embarrassing for Texans that our Lieutenant Governor wants to actively stifle speech he finds threatening to his narrow-mindedness. How shameful that our most powerful elected statewide official behaves in this manner. He reflects poorly on all Texans, the bulk of whom are vastly more tolerant and accepting than he is.

Further shame: the award-winning McNally is a native of Corpus Christi, and has won four Tony Awards, two Guggenheim Fellowships, a Rockefeller Grant, the Lucille Lortel Award, the Hull-Warriner Award, and a citation from the American Academy of Arts and Letters. Yet rather than praise our native son, Dewhurst wants to condemn him.

The play in question, Corpus Christi, has always been a lightning-rod for conservative bigotry. From the Wikipedia, emphasis mine:

In 1997, McNally stirred up a storm of controversy with Corpus Christi, a modern day retelling of the story of Jesus' birth, ministry, and death in which both he and his disciples are portrayed as homosexual. In fact, the play was initially cancelled because of death threats from extremist religious groups against the board members of the Manhattan Theatre Club which was to produce the play. However, several other playwrights such as Tony Kushner threatened to withdraw their plays if Corpus Christi  was not produced, and the board finally relented. When the play opened, the theatre was besieged by almost 2000 protesters, furious at what they considered blasphemy.

In all of this, it is the student who directed the play who has perhaps come across as the most — dare I say, “Christ-like.”

“I am both a Christian and gay,” [John] Otte said in a video interview. “This play deals with that subject matter, I believe in a tasteful way. … I don't believe in a God who hates me for who I am.

He added, “Never did I choose this play to attack Christians. I am one.”

He said he disagreed with the widely held view among Stephenville clergy and others that McNally's play is blasphemy. “I personally don't believe that,: Otte said. “I respect those people's feelings that do believe that. I respect your religions.”

It is unfortunate that this same level of respect and tolerance cannot be practiced by our Lieutenant Governor David Dewhurst. It is shameful that he would condemn this act of self-expression because it threatens his own homophobic beliefs. Finally, it is embarrassing for Texas that our statewide “leadership” cares more about divisive, hate-filled rhetoric than praising the best of our state and celebrating our diversity.

Texas can and must do better.  

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About Author

Katherine Haenschen

Katherine Haenschen is a PhD candidate at the University of Texas, where she studies political participation on digital media. She previously managed successful candidate, issue, voter registration, and GOTV campaigns in Central Texas. She is also a fan of UCONN women's basketball and breakfast tacos.

8 Comments

  1. Great post
    Thanks for this excellent post, Katherine. “Texas can and must do better” is absolutely true, and getting to the “better” includes people like John Otte, to whom I am grateful. It also includes Tarleton's Dottavio, who at least does recognize free speech rights. And it includes postings like this.

  2. Performance canceled
    According to this morning's Austin American-Statesman, the professor in the class decided to cancel the performance due to fears about security. That's canceled, not rescheduled. Intolerance wins this round.  

    • And art loses.
      Our Texas Republicans hate all things artistic…the expression of ideas that might lead to enlightenment.

  3. Bobby Levinski on

    Flashback to Puritans
    Did that hot tub I was in yesterday send me back in time?  Wait, no…it just kept me in Texas.

    This is unacceptable censorship of the art, unacceptable promotion of hate, and unacceptable behavior by an elected official.  When elected officials get involved in hot-blooded issues like this and endorse statements of hate, they need to be held responsible for every threat received by those students.

    On a separate note, I would like to point out that this problem goes beyond even Republican leadership.  Let's not forget the 2008 RENT production that had its funding yanked by AISD.

  4. A word from a local
    In November I travelled to Stephenville, where I grew up, and where my family lives, and has lived for almost 100 years (after moving there from smaller towns).

    The reason for my November visit was to speak at Tarleton State University's first gay rights rally. No. I'm not kidding. Gay Rights. Stephenville. And, on a bitterly cold November night, several dozen students showed up to speak, and listen, try to stay warm, and drink hot chocolate during an evening rally for equality. And, at that rally President Dotavio showed up and spoke, clearly declaring his support for LGBT equality.

    Corpus Christi should, of course, have been performed. But, the blame for cancellation needs to be shared between the craziest folks threatening violence, and the Lt. Governor, who decided to inject himself into a situation that was not his jurisdiction, and fan the flames of hate, and homophobia, and even violence.

    Dottavio was on the right side of this issue. He was not going to cancel the play. Turns out he's a damned good college president. His unfortunate choice of language (while not condeming the play, but not LGBT folks) was undoubtedly aimed at placating domors to the university and those who threaten violence, and even state-wide elected officials, while allowing the play to go on.

    And, just for the record, the local paper also ran a poll about the play, and whether it should be shown. While that poll ran against the play, it was much closer than you would expect given the alleged pervasiveness of “small town values.” Small town people value free speech, as well.  And small town people value the people they know, as human beings, regardless of their orientation.

    Sure, we have a long, long way to go before LGBT people are treated fairly and humanely, by everyone. And, it's still very hard to “come out” in small towns. Hell, it's hard to “come out,” anywhere. But, give small town residents, small colleges, and surprisingly courageous college presidents their due. We've also come a long way. Most people understand tolerance, and treating people equally, except perhaps, our Lt. Gov.

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